Soulful Sounds: Jazz & Blues in Hot Springs | Hot Springs National Park Arkansas

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Soulful Sounds: Jazz & Blues in Hot Springs

I fell down a rabbit hole of jazz and blues history and landed back in Hot Springs where the roots of American music entangle with the city’s past. Some of the genres’ earliest and biggest influencers made their way through the historic spa town. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway all performed at the historic Woodmen of the Union Building – a hotel, bathhouse and performance venue that catered to African-American visitors during the days of segregation. And Bessie Smith, regarded by many as the greatest blues singers of all time, was inspired by a visit to Hot Springs to write and record “The Hot Springs Blues” in 1927. 

Bessie Smith via WikipediaLord, if you ever get crippled, let me tell you what to do
Take a trip to Hot Springs, and let ‘em wait on you 
When they put you in the water and do the bathhouse rag
Lord, they’ll put you in the water and do the bathhouse rag
And if you don’t get well, you’ll sure come back

Today, jazz and blues, in its many forms, can still be heard here – in dimly lit lounges, at our music festivals, and in the songs of some amazingly-talented musicians who call Hot Springs “home.”

On a recent Thursday night, a small crowd was gathered on the sidewalk just outside Arkansas’ oldest bar where a life-size statue of its most notorious patron, Al Capone, casually sits on a bench. Cigar in hand, it’s as if he’s taking a smoke break, waiting for the next band to start up. I slip by and into the historic venue, past the antique mahogany bar, and up the staircase. There beneath the low ceiling and low lights, one of Hot Springs’ most accomplished musicians takes the stage for his weekly performance. 

Every Thursday night is “Jazz Night” at the Ohio Club, featuring the Clyde Pound Trio along with a special guest each week. Despite what his name might suggest, Pound plays the piano lightly, his long fingers bouncing like happy spiders on a trampoline. They fall on the keys in unison, before spreading out in different directions as if each fingertip has a mind of its own. I notice there is no sheet music and mention it to my friend, local pianist Chuck Dodson, who had told me about this weekly event.

“He transcends the page, the written note,” Dodson tells me. “He’s a great improviser.”

A California native, Pound performed in night clubs in San Francisco and Las Vegas, playing with big-name acts like Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Mel Tormé and Johnny Mathis among others. He toured with Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band and the Dukes of Dixieland. In Hawaii, where he lived for 34 years, he worked as a contractor for orchestras, providing local performers for entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, The Four Tops, The Temptations and Natalie Cole. 

Since retiring to Hot Springs in 2007, Pound has been a driving force in the local jazz scene, producing and performing at various events and serving as chairman of the Hot Springs JazzFest. 

“Like most musicians, I didn’t really retire,” Pound said. “Musicians don’t retire. They can say ‘no,’ I guess, but don't because we like to play any kind of music.

On the night I saw Pound, his trio included Byron Yancey of Hot Springs on bass guitar and Brandon Brockinton of Conway on drums. They were joined by special guest Gary Meggs of Texarkana on saxophone.

The Ohio Club, which has fostered numerous jazz and blues artists over the years, opened in 1905 as a bar and casino. It continued operating through Prohibition and several crackdowns on illegal gambling. (The casino was eventually shut down following a raid in 1969.) Today the club serves as a bar, restaurant and live music venue. 

“Music has been affiliated with the Ohio Club ever since 1905 when it opened,” said Dona Pettey who owns the venue with her husband, Mike, and performs weekends with her band, The Ohio Club Players. 

In Hot Springs' “heyday” – when it flourished as an elegant spa town as well as a haven for organized crime – the city was home to numerous nightclubs that hosted the top entertainers of the day. While the majority of those venues are now shuttered, the music of the era is not forgotten but celebrated with our annual Hot Springs Jazz and Blues Festivals. Both events are held over Labor Day weekend, making it a perfect time for jazz and blues fans to visit.

The Festivals

Hot Springs Jazz Society and JazzFest

A nonprofit, volunteer organization, The Hot Springs Jazz Society was founded in 1991 and is dedicated to the “preservation, presentation and perpetuation of jazz,” according to its mission statement. 

“We want to foster a greater awareness of jazz music through providing live performances year-round,” said Executive Director Gretchen Taylor. “We also want to support the performing artists, keeping a keen eye on local artists within our community and within Arkansas to make sure they have an arena to showcase their talents.”

The Jazz Society presents many events throughout the year, most notably the Hot Springs JazzFest. Held over Labor Day weekend, the event features a variety of performances around downtown, culminating with the JazzFest Block Party, a free outdoor concert held under the Broadway Street Sky-bridge. Other JazzFest performances include the Classical & Jazz Blow Out and the Jazz Mass at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. 

A showcase for regional, national and international jazz performers, JazzFest has featured local acts like the Arkansas Jazz Orchestra and the Spa City Stompers, as well as Arkansas Jazz Hall of Famer Earl Hesse, Grammy Award-winning artists Matt Catingub, Terence Blanchard and Randy Brecker, and many other notable performers in its nearly 30 year history. 

The Jazz Society also hosts an annual fundraiser – the Mardi Gras Costume Ball & Contest. Held at the Hotel Hot Springs, the event features a costume contest, live music, and a silent auction. Funds raised from the event help the Jazz Society keep their concerts free or low cost, and help pay for scholarships to send Arkansas high school students to a summer jazz camp hosted at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. The organization sends about 10 students a year. For more information about the Jazz Society including future JazzFest lineup's, visit www.hsjazzsociety.org

Spa City Blues Society and Hot Springs Blues Festival

Also a nonprofit, volunteer organization, the Spa City Blues Society was founded in 1997 with a mission “to promote and perpetuate” blues music. Its events include the Hot Springs Blues Festival held Labor Day weekend, The Hot Springs Gumbo and Crawfish Festival in April and the Hot Springs Craft Beer Festival in May. 

Held outdoors at Hill Wheatley Plaza downtown, the Blues Festival features performances by local and regional blues musicians, and has welcomed some award-winning national acts over the years, like Anthony Gomes and Shemekia Copeland. 

“They’ve had a lot of really class blues acts play this festival over the last 25 years,” said local musician Larry Womack who has performed at the festival about a dozen times. 

Other local acts have included the John Calvin Brewer Band, Lightnin’ Lee Langdon, Heavy Suga’ and the Sweetones, Greg “Big Papa” Binns, and the Spa City Youngbloods. 

The Spa City Youngbloods are the product of the SCBS’ Blues in the Schools program which provides students in grades 7-12 with music lessons on the instrument of their choice. The students are taught by local musicians and have the opportunity to perform several times a year.

The SCBS also hosts a preliminary competition in October to find musical acts to sponsors at the International Blues Challenge held annually in Memphis, Tenn. Over the years, the SCBS has sponsored Charlotte Taylor and Gypsy Rain of Little Rock, Mike Tripp of Garland County, Steve “Jelly” Brown and Kathy Kidd of Hot Springs, and the Hoodoo Blues Revue from Little Rock. 

In 2004 the SCBS sent Lightnin’ Lee Langdon and the Upright Rooster (aka Scott Meeks) who went on to win the solo/duo portion of the prestigious competition. I first heard Langdon perform at the Ohio Club circa 2000. A few years later, when my husband and I were dating, we would go and listen to him play every Wednesday night at the Big Chill, a cozy bar and live music venue that has also seen a lot of local talent on its stage. We actually got engaged at the Big Chill one night while Langdon was playing. We announced the news to him and he agreed to play our wedding. A few months later, I was walking down the aisle to Langdon’s rendition of Tom Wait’s Little Trip to Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love), which he learned for the occasion and still plays whenever we see him. Langdon mostly flies under the radar now, dipping in and out of the music scene, but keep an eye out for him. He’s one of the best bluesmen out there. 

“You stick a guitar in his hand and a microphone, and you’re going to hear some real authentic blues,” Womack said of Langdon. “He’s the best.”

Womack is also a well-respected bluesman in the community. He has been playing professionally for about 45 years and has competed twice in the IBC as part of the duo Jackie B & Me, which also includes Jacqueline Beaumont. The duo made it to the semi-finals both times. Womack plays Sunday and Monday nights at the Ohio Club, performing a variety of styles though he is a bluesman at heart.

“He’s one of the harder working musicians that I’ve ever met,” said SCBS President Bert Clevenger. For more information about the SCBS including future festival lineup's visit www.spacityblues.org

More Music

The Stardust Big Band at the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa 

Once a month, Hot Springs’ most iconic hotel hosts a dance in the Crystal Ballroom, featuring the Stardust Big Band. This award-winning, 14-piece band boasts a repertoire of more than 200 songs with arrangements from Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and many others. The group formed in 1982 and has been performing at the Arlington since 1992. 

“It’s a varied group of dedicated musicians who come to rehearsal every Wednesday night,” said Stardust vocalist Shirley Chauvin who has been performing with the group since 1994. “These are good, accomplished, polished musicians. They’re not there to learn their craft. They know it.”

In addition to the monthly dance, Stardust performs at the Arlington’s annual New Year’s Eve Gala Dinner Dance. 

Cost for the monthly dance is $10 per person. Click here for upcoming dates.

Vocalist Shirley ChauvinAmerica’s Art Form 

Presented by the Hot Springs Jazz Society and the Garland County Library, America’s Art Form is a free monthly concert series with some 30 concerts under its belt. The event features a performance by the America’s Art Form trio and a special guest to showcase a different style or detail of American-born music. In the past, they’ve explored the big band sound with vocalist Shirley Chauvin and swing with Earl Hesse on saxophone and clarinet. America’s Art Form is hosted in the library’s auditorium on the second Wednesday of each month from October-February.

Jazz on a Saturday Morning 

Musician, retired music professor, and jazz aficionado John Leisenring hosts a weekly radio show, Jazz on a Saturday Morning, on the local community radio station, KUHS 102.5. Known on-air as “The Other Dr. John,” he plays “mainstream jazz,”  featuring big band and combo jazz primarily from the 1950s–1970s though he occasionally slips in older and newer jazz artists. Having taught jazz history at the University of Missouri Kansas City Campus, he shares his wealth of knowledge with listeners. A trombone player, he has played in some 35 states and nine foreign countries. Locally, he is member of the Spa City Stompers, a Dixieland band, and has played at the Ohio Club with Pound.


Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.

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